The fresh meets the canned in name of time and taste The Combination plate

June 01, 1994|By JeanMarie Brownson | JeanMarie Brownson,Chicago Tribune

Cooking in the 1990s has a different meaning than when our mothers prepared Sunday dinner. Today, if we merely shred the meat from a supermarket roast chicken and wrap it up in a toasted tortilla with a spoonful of salsa, we think we've cooked.

Called "assembly cooking" by some trend-watchers and "speed scratch" by others, this new manner of cooking -- characterized by a combined use of convenience products and fresh ingredients -- is hot.

Even at this year's Pillsbury Bake-Off, that bastion of home cooking, the trend emerged. Winners coupled canned corn, beans, salsa, frozen vegetables and rice mixtures with fresh ingredients to garner top prizes.

Time -- or the lack of it -- fuels the trend more than culinary ineptitude.

The average time spent preparing a weekday dinner is a little over 39 minutes, according to respondents in a study by Kraft. (For a weekend dinner, respondents allotted 47 minutes.)

Despite time constraints, respondents still described the ideal weekday meal as tasty, enjoyed by the entire family, nutritious and easy to prepare. The meal should provide good leftovers as well.

Wow. All of that in 40 minutes or less? That virtually rules out much of the foods mom taught us to make, such as roasted chicken and stews and soups from scratch. Likewise sidelined until the weekend are lighting the grill -- with its 30 minutes of heating time -- baking from scratch and creating multiple courses.

Preparing a weekday dinner in less than 40 minutes challenges even the best of cooks. No wonder we are turning to convenience foods.

Linda Dayiantis Straub of Rolling Meadows, Ill.,a professional musician and mother of three young children, says ideally she cooks without convenience products.

"I cook pretty simple things like roasts and chicken prepared as many ways as I can figure out.

"Salsa and refried beans -- especially the vegetarian ones -- are pretty much staples in my house. The beans are a great accompaniment at breakfast -- or for dinner heated in a tortilla in the oven -- it's really quick."

"The fresh pastas sauces, such as Contadina's four-cheese and Alfredo sauces, are really high quality," Ms. Straub says. "I use them obviously on pasta, but also to get my kids to eat their vegetables -- if they have those sauces on them they will eat them.

"For breakfast with a little more interest, I add salsa to eggs to make a Mexican omelet. I try to avoid products that are high in salt and contain MSG. Basically the things I buy I feel pretty confident that they are good ingredients."

According to Eleanor Hanson, a partner in Foodwatch, a trend analysis firm in River Forest, Ill., and Minneapolis, consumers like Ms. Straub want more than "dump" cuisine.

"It is not acceptable today to just open a bunch of cans and dump them together. . . . [Consumers] are looking for good ingredients and good taste.

"They want to combine the convenience with freshness and wholesomeness. Speed-scratch, or assembly cooking, or KISS cooking, "Keep it simple, stupid," as we call it, is not "dump

cuisine." Rather, it's a way a family can assemble a meal very quickly as well as give it some homemade aspects.

"So there's nothing wrong with using a can of soup, but not over canned vegetables. Today it's more likely to be used over fresh vegetables. There's a balance going on."

Ms. Hanson says most of the attention focuses on main courses, or the "center of the plate" in trend-watcher lingo. Today's cooks create more one-dish meals.

"We are going beyond the skillet dinner and the casserole," Ms. Hanson says. "Now, we're seeing main-dish salads and a trend toward soups and sandwiches -- either individually or in combination. So you can still put together a quick and simple meal that you can be proud of and not shortchange your family."

Food manufacturers work hard to address this concept, says Ms. Hanson, who was director of the Kraft Kitchens before starting her consulting firm and newsletter. Companies are creating products that work with fresh components and very simple recipes. Ms. Hanson cites best-selling items such as pizza shells, frozen bread dough, prepared lettuces, prepared sauces, fresh-cut vegetables and cut meat as examples.

Nearly 90 percent of Americans who regularly cook dinners during the week combine some of these products with fresh ingredients, according to a survey sponsored by Land O Lakes.

Lydia Botham, director of Land O Lakes' test kitchens, says speed-scratch cooking allows Americans to prepare homemade meals with fresh, wholesome ingredients without spending all day in the kitchen.

She says that in addition to saving time, -- she figures 20 minutes or less for this type of cooking -- assembly cooking also saves dirty dishes. And short recipes are easily committed to memory -- another time-saver when planning meals and shopping.

A list of products to keep on hand is included, as well as recipes to turn them into quick weekday meals.

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